Max Richter may be the most important composer of our time. His work has been heard in concert halls, during the emotional climax of major Hollywood films and television series, and has permeated the personal listening of millions worldwide via the democratic technology that is music streaming.
Not one to shy away from big ideas, Max’s music has tackled such challenging subject matter as the Iraq War (The Blue Notebooks, 2012) and terrorism (Infra, 2010). He has worked in the macro-scale – in Sleep (2015) the 8-hour work to accompany a full night’s sleep – and in the micro – in 24 Postcards in Full Colour (2014) a collection of musical moments intended as alternatives to the stock ringtones in your mobile phone.
ZoneOut’s Paul Dougherty spoke with Max Richter about his thoughts on technology, developing a democratic musical language, and his era-defining new work – Voices.
You have delved into the intersection of music and technology several times in your career – most recently with the Sleep app. What attracted you to turning Sleep into an app?
Sleep is a project which frames a piece of music very much in terms of its utility. Sleep is a tool, in a way – a piece of music for people to use. And to transform it into an app makes that tool way more flexible, and way more approachable.
So instead of having this monolithic eight-and-a-half-hour piece – which has only got one shape – the app allows people to personalize it, to have a personal relationship with it, and use that music in a way which fits into their lives. It’s a very democratic idea.
Are there any apps that have become helpful tools for you?
I am very careful with how much technology I use. And actually that was one of the points of me writing Sleep originally, this idea that we were getting a bit data saturated.
Obviously I use the computer, and I use apps quite a bit, as we all do. But I try to be quite specific about what I use them for.
So for example, I have an astronomy app, which gives you a virtual sky to find your way around in, which I love because I’m very interested in astronomy.
Thanks to the internet and streaming we now have nearly unlimited access to media and content. How have your feelings about music streaming changed over the years?
Well, I think streaming has actually democratized music listening beyond categories.
It used to be the case that you were funneled into a silo of taste. You walked into a physical record store, and you either walked into the classical area – where there were only classical records, and that’s all you heard or could see – or you went to rock and pop or electronic music. You were put in a box in that physical space.
And now that’s gone. You hear a track, and if you like it, you listen to it. And if you don’t like it, you don’t listen to it. So you’re really led by your affection and your taste.
I think there’s something quite lovely about that. Streaming allows people to just fall in love with things and then pursue them, which that’s really what creativity is all about.
A DEMOCRATIC MUSICAL LANGUAGE
Composing music that is accessible to a wide range of people is clearly very important to you. Where does this desire come from?
When I trained as a composer the orthodoxy was to write music that was extremely complicated and very difficult to play.
After a while, I started wondering who it was actually for, and why I was doing it. I would go to a concert of my music, or other people’s music, and the audience was all other composers – and that’s it!
So I thought, well look, music is a communicative art. It’s a way to talk about stuff. It’s a storytelling art, and it’s a community activity. So if I’m going to be having these musical conversations, then I want to be speaking plainly.
So I simplified my language and made it very direct, and really made communication central to my practice.
Did you find that as your musical language opened up a new world of listeners was revealed to you?
Two things happened. First of all, when I removed the complexity from my language, I was also removing the traditional signifiers of “quality” from it. So that meant the classical music community generally disregarded it completely.
But at the same time, I was working through an independent record label in the UK, who had a very open ear to an audience without quite the same judgements about quality, people who were coming from electronic music and post-rock and experimental things.
The world of contemporary classical music that you are describing sounds quite isolated.
It is, in a sense, yes. Classical music – most of the time for most people – is resolutely apolitical.
There have been exceptions. Beethoven is absolutely a person who was concerned with people’s place in the world – how society happens, social justice, human rights. Fidelio, the Ninth Symphony, these are activist works. And throughout music history there have been activist works.
I can’t comment for everyone – there are many prominent artists who really take strong positions on social and cultural societal issues. But I would say it’s a minority. Generally speaking classical music is about classical music.
Making a political statement with music is not something you’ve shied away from in your career. Your work has responded to the Iraq War (The Blue Notebooks, 2002) and terrorism (Infra, 2010). Is Voices also a political statement about the world today?
You’re right. A lot of my work has come from an activist position. The things that make me want to create pieces are the big stories of our time.
Voices is a response to what has been going on in the last 10 years. We have this idea of a liberal consensus which drove the post-Second World War era. And it did so for a really long time. But over the last 10 years a lot of our assumptions about the direction of travel have become questioned and eroded.
You have the rise of populism, a return of xenophobia and nationalism, authoritarian regimes. And a loss of that inspiration moving us towards a more liberal world. That’s what Voices is really responding to.
It’s easy to become a bit disheartened and disillusioned by that. And actually – at the very beginning of the writing process – Voices was quite an abrasive piece of protest music. But I felt really that I wouldn’t be adding anything helpful to the conversation if I did that.
So I put the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the center of the piece to try and focus on the solution rather than on the problem.
I’m hopeful, but it’s going to take us a bit of rethinking. The problems that we have are problems that we have made. So it stands to reason that the solutions are also available to us.
Voices piece is about the future. It’s a future that will be written by us.